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In one sense, the arrival of AIDS in the American psyche a decade ago ended the debate over sex education. Health experts were clear about the crisis: By the time they are 20, three-quarters of young Americans have had sex; one- fourth of teens contract some venereal disease each year. About 20% of all AIDS patients are under 30, but because the incubation period is eight years or more, the CDC believes a large proportion were infected with HIV as teenagers.
In such a climate of fear, moral debate seemed like a luxury. Get them the information, give them protection, we can talk about morality later. There is a fishbowl full of condoms in the nurse's office, help yourself. While only three states mandated sex ed in 1980, today 47 states formally require or recommend it; all 50 support AIDS education.
; But as parents and educators watch the fallout from nearly a decade of lessons geared to disaster prevention -- here is a diagram of female anatomy, this is how you put on a condom -- there are signs that this bloodless approach to learning about sex doesn't work. Kids are continuing to try sex at an ever more tender age: more than a third of 15-year-old boys have had sexual intercourse, as have 27% of 15-year-old girls -- up from 19% in 1982. Among sexually active teenage girls, 61% have had multiple partners, up from 38% in 1971. Among boys, incidents like the score-keeping Spur Posse gang in California and the sexual-assault convictions of the Glen Ridge, New Jersey, jock stars suggest that whatever is being taught, responsible sexuality isn't being learned.
Beyond what studies and headlines can convey, it is the kids who best express their confusion and distress. Audrey Lee, 15, has taken a sex- education class at San Leandro High School in California, but, she asserts, "there's no real discussion about emotional issues and people's opinions." The program consists mostly of films and slides with information on sex and birth control. It lacks any give-and-take on issues like date rape and how to say no to sexual pressure. "The school doesn't emphasize anything," she says. "If you have a question, you go to your friends, but they don't have all the answers." As for her family, "sex is not mentioned."
"Adults have one foot in the Victorian era while kids are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic," complains pediatrician Karen Hein, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who has seen too many teens infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases come through her hospital. She laments the fact that sex ed is only "about vaginas, ovaries and abstinence -- not about intimacy and expressing feelings." Kids, she says, "don't know what they're supposed to be doing, and adults are really not helping them much."